This article was written by Stew Thornley
This article was published in Fall 2020 Baseball Research Journal
Minneapolis Millers shortstop Andy Oyler topped a pitch into the mud in front of home plate at Nicollet Park. Before the visiting team could find the ball, Oyler raced around the bases for what may be the shortest home run in history.
This story has been around for over 100 years. For more than half that time, I have tried to find documentation of it. I learned of the tale in a 1966 article about Nicollet Park by Dave Mona in the Minneapolis Tribune, one that had a lasting effect on me.1 Through its anecdotes, the article sparked an interest in Nicollet Park that fit with my fascination for old ballparks. It created an obsession with the Minneapolis Millers, which led to hundreds of hours at microfilm machines to document every game played by the Millers. The result was my first book, On to Nicollet: The Glory and Fame of the Minneapolis Millers, as well as the revelation that no home run of this type ever happened at Nicollet Park.2
During my research on the Millers, I paid particular attention to 1903 through 1910—when Oyler played for Minneapolis—and I looked closely for any event approaching this story. Nothing emerged. Oyler hit only one home run for the Millers. It came in an 8-6 loss at Milwaukee on August 2, 1904, and the newspapers made no mention of anything special, something that would have been noted had the ball traveled only a few feet.
That didn’t keep the story from being told—and retold. It appeared the year after Oyler’s career with Minneapolis ended.3 The earliest mention found was April 20, 1911, in a Buffalo, New York, newspaper; hundreds of other papers—generally in small towns across the United States—picked up the story through telegraph services and repeated it. The story says the home run was a game-ender against the rival St. Paul Saints, replete with colorful descriptions such as, “Oyler rounded third like Casey Jones in his six-eight wheeler, making connections with the Santa Fe, and pulled up at home plate, scoring the winning run.”4
Oyler’s muddy home run has turned up in Catholic Digest in 1953 and, more than once, in Baseball Digest, including a 1958 article by Bill Bryson, a longtime sportswriter in Iowa. Bryson’s son, Michael G. Bryson, used it as the title story in a 1990 book, The Twenty-Four Inch Home Run and Other Outlandish, Incredible but True Events in Baseball History. Bryson embellished his version with a description of Oyler ducking an inside pitch with the ball striking his bat and landing in the mud in front of home plate.5
Good researchers know that sometimes the essence of a story may be true even if details of it get mangled over time. Could have it been a triple into the mud that, in multiple retellings, grew into a home run? Or even a single? The closest resemblance found came during a June 28, 1904, game. A reporter for the Minneapolis Journal wrote a whimsical account of a sixth-inning run by the Millers, driven in by Oyler when he “attempted to duck a wild throw, inadvertently hit it and it rolled fair.” The Minneapolis Tribune reported that rain threatened the game in the early innings but held off, and the field was dry in the sixth when Oyler topped the pitch in front of the plate. Nothing more happened than Oyler reaching base while driving home a runner from third.6
In 2005 I heard from Bob Kotanchik, a boyhood friend of John Oyler, Andy’s grandson. Kotanchik had read of the feat on the back of a baseball card in the mid-1950s and asked his friend about it.7 I also talked to John, who said he and Bob later got a first-hand account of the story from Andy.8
In January 2020, Oyler’s alleged ball turned up on Antiques Roadshow. Ted Oyler told appraiser Leila Dunbar that his grandfather sent the muddy ball to his family—scrawling an address on it, affixing a stamp, and putting it in the mail. “And then he followed it with a letter, explaining what it was,” said Ted. “We have a letter, I don’t have it on me, but there is a letter and it’s been rolling around in a desk drawer for a hundred years.”9
I tracked down that branch of the Oylers. As for the letter that was supposed to have explained everything, a family member acknowledged no such letter existed and attributed Ted Oyler’s claim of it as “ancestral elaboration.”10
I had a couple of phone conversations with Fred Oyler, Andy’s son and Ted’s dad, who lives in Carlisle in central Pennsylvania, an area where Andy lived most of his life. Fred is the owner of the ball and lent it to his son for Antiques Roadshow. Fred confirmed there was no letter that followed the ball and freely stated that the story may be “fact or fiction.”11
The Antiques Roadshow appearance sent me back to the archives of the SABR-L listserv, a longtime resource for me on this and other topics, and I found this gem of a response from 1999: “Sabermetric research has gone too far! Somebody stop Stew Thornley before he proves without a doubt that Oyler’s HR never happened. The story is far too beautiful to be potentially sullied by cold-hearted Truth.”12
Was this a tongue-in-cheek comment? I interpreted it as such although in ensuing years I’ve encountered serious opinions from people who don’t want their legends destroyed and who claim people like me have a “fetish” for accuracy. Anyone familiar with the movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance knows the sentiment: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Before the Society for American Baseball Research—an organization founded in 1971 with establishing “an accurate historical account of baseball through the years” as one of its objectives—frivolous yarns ruled. Alfred H. Spink’s 1911 book, The National Game, includes a wild tale of a St. Paul pitcher losing a game to Minneapolis when a batted ball stuck on a nail high up on the outfield fence, allowing three runs to score before his teammates could get a ladder.13
Mac Davis in his 1958 book, Sports Shorts: Astonishing Strange but True, has equally implausible stories, including one of a dead man winning a game for a Benson, Minnesota, team “around the turn of the century.” According to the county historical society, “The story was a figment of the imagination of a railroad man here who got together with an umpire and concocted the story, sending it out on the telegraph wire.” Most stories emanating from thin air can’t be traced back to a source, if, indeed, the historical society version isn’t apocryphal itself.14
Hugh Fullerton, a writer deeply connected with the 1919 White Sox intentionally losing the World Series (itself the subject of widespread myths that have been debunked by SABR’s Black Sox Scandal Research Committee), had a reputation for whoppers. In his 2016 book, The Betrayal: The 1919 World Series and the Birth of Modern Baseball, Charles Fountain wrote that when accused of sacrificing accuracy for the sake of a good story, Fullerton replied, “You would sacrifice a good story for the sake of accuracy.”15
Perhaps no one got more mileage from fanciful anecdotes than Bill Stern, the sportscaster renowned for hyperbole and outright fabrications on his weekly radio show. Stern bristled at criticism of his mythmaking and, in his 1959 autobiography, wrote that his sports program was “strictly entertainment and being such was one in which I was entitled to unlimited dramatic license.”16
Entertainment allowing for dramatic license even when the stories are presented as fact? This question became central to a captivating SABR-L thread in 1995-1996 about Ken Burns’s Baseball.
An innocuous inquiry on the listserv led to a discussion of the accuracy of Baseball and eventually to questions of whether Burns had intentionally misrepresented information for the sake of the story. The topic came down to the primary question: “If Burns took such liberties, was it proper?”
A consultant on the Burns project, former Hall of Fame librarian Tom Heitz, responded with a post, “In defense of Ken Burns,” in which he wrote, “The art of myth-making in baseball journalism has unfortunately been largely lost by the current generation of broadcasters and scribes who have been subjected to ‘training’ in journalistic accuracy, etc.”17
Spirited debate followed from SABR stalwarts Larry Gerlach, John Pastier, Tom Wark, John Thorn, Marvin Bittinger, and Stewart Wolpin until Nancy Jo Leachman cut to the core with the question, “WHY, WHY, WHY is this a debate about choosing between historical accuracy and folkloric awe and wonder?”18
Over time, I have learned the value of colorful tales, even dubious ones, and that they can be told with a buyer-beware disclaimer. Dave Mona’s 1966 article on Nicollet Park sent me on a life-long journey of baseball research, fueled by stories that may or may not be true. Mona produced the “folkloric awe and wonder” that Nancy Jo Leachman wrote of while also noting, “Part of Nicollet’s lore exists in the realm of ‘hard to believe and verify’ anecdotes.”19
Matt Tavares, then a SABR member, contacted me in 2004 as he worked on a children’s book about the home run, Mudball. Tavares knew the story was suspect and acknowledged it in the book’s afterword: “…[M]any baseball historians believe that Andy Oyler’s muddy home run never happened. Over the years, the legend of Andy Oyler has grown. With each retelling, details have been added and altered. And what has emerged is a classic American folktale . . . Even though these stories might not be true, they endure because they give us heroes we can emulate and Everymen with whom we can identify.”20
On the other hand, Michael G. Bryson, who included “True” in the title of his book and referred to “professional baseball’s shortest bona fide homer,” presented no such disclaimer or caveat.
Skepticism is an essential quality in a researcher. So is sensitivity.
I learned a lesson in 1984 when I told Joe Hauser that 50 of his 69 homers in 1933 came at cozy Nicollet Park, ruining his recollection that he had hit at least half on the road. Researchers can be sensitive with the subjects of stories but remain true to facts they disseminate. Although I felt bad for the clumsy manner in which I diminished Hauser’s achievement in his mind, I didn’t doctor the details when I listed his home runs in On to Nicollet.
As I’ve been in touch with Oyler family members, I have avoided talking in terms of debunking the story. Instead, I focused on trying to get information to nail down the date of the event. Perhaps something of the sort happened sometime—when Oyler played baseball at Washington & Jefferson College or on an amateur team in Chambersburg or Newville in Pennsylvania—and the story morphed into a home run in professional baseball.21
My initial conversations with Fred Oyler, Andy’s son, in March 2020 indicated his own skepticism about the story. Three-and-a-half months later, Fred called me. In his dad’s trunk, Fred discovered an article by me with the news that the only home run Oyler hit with the Millers was definitely not a mud ball.22 “You answered the question,” he said. “It is definitely [just] a legend.”
Fred also recalled a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, newspaper talking to his dad and printing the legend. Fred asked his dad if the story was real. “He demurred. He didn’t deny it. He didn’t say it was true. He was a pretty straight-laced guy. He would have told me if it was true.”
True or not, the legend has been interesting for the Oylers and others. Fred worked in Japan for five-and-a-half years and told his dad’s story to a co-worker who was a baseball fan. Thanks to the co-worker’s connections, Fred ended up on a Japanese version of the television show I’ve Got a Secret.
Far from upset about the truth, Fred is at peace with it. He plans to donate the ball to the Cumberland County Historical Society. I told him when we were past the COVID-19 pandemic that R.J. Lesch, a SABR member who lives in Carlisle, was going to invite him to a SABR meeting. When I said I would come out there for such a meeting, Fred told me he would pay for my plane ticket (a kind offer that I declined).
The experience has been another lesson—the pursuit of facts doesn’t mean the end of a legend. It may even enhance it. After all, what baseball myth is more memorable than Abner Doubleday being the game’s creator? And the story behind it is even greater: a committee created not to learn the true origins of baseball, only that it was American in its roots, and its reliance on a 1905 letter written by a most unreliable source, Abner Graves.23
Andy Oyler’s alleged mudball has also taken on a life of its own, one more interesting than the original tale.
“I think we’ll put the story to bed . . . finally,” Fred Oyler concluded. “It will be in the historical society for people to enjoy that way.”24
STEW THORNLEY has been researching Minnesota baseball history for more than 40 years. His first book, “On to Nicollet: The Glory and Fame of the Minneapolis Millers,” covered the history of baseball in Minneapolis. He has been a SABR member since 1979. Stew is an official scorer for Major League Baseball and is a member of the MLB Official Scoring Advisory Committee.
Thanks to members and friends of the Oyler family—Fred (Andy’s son), John (Andy’s grandson), Bob Kotanchik (boyhood friend of John Oyler), and Steve Ruetter (Andy’s grandson-in-law)—as well as SABR members Ev Cope (who alerted me to the segment on Antiques Roadshow), David McDonald, Dave Mona, Rich Arpi, Tim Herlich, F.X. Flinn, Paul Ember, Cary Smith, Wayne McElreavy, Jim Wohlenhaus, Matt Tavares, Ed Morton, Bob LeMoine, Rod Nelson, and Curt Smith.
For more on Minnesota Sports Myths and the phenomenon of how myths can happen, see https://milkeespress.com/minnesotamyths.html.
1 “Nicollet Park: A Colorful Page in Baseball History” by Dave Mona, Minneapolis Tribune, November 6, 1966: 2, Home and Recreation.
2 Stew Thornley, On to Nicollet: The Glory and Fame of the Minneapolis Millers, Minneapolis: Nodin Press: 1988 and 2000.
3 Oyler had been beaned in 1909 and, unable to regain his former skills, retired in 1910. He did try a comeback with Kansas City in the American Association in 1912 but lasted only four games.
4 “Made a Home Run on a Bunt,” Buffalo (New York) Enquirer, April 20, 1911: 9.
5 “There Was Joy in Mudville,” Catholic Digest, Volume 17, June 1953: 12; “Inch-hit Homer!” by Jocko Maxwell, Baseball Digest, April 1953: 29-30; “The World’s Shortest Home Runs” by Bill Bryson, Baseball Digest, October-November 1958: 67-68; Michael G. Bryson, The Twenty-Four-Inch Home Run and Other Outlandish, Incredible But True Events in Baseball History, Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1990: 21-23.
6 O’Loughlin, “Kansas City Not in the Running,” Minneapolis Journal, June 29, 1904: 14; “Second Victory for the Millers,” Minneapolis Tribune, June 29, 1904: 9.
7 1955 Topps card, number 114, of Lou Ortiz.
8 Email correspondence and telephone conversations with Bob Kotanchik and John Oyler, 2005.
9 Antiques Roadshow, aired on PBS, January 20, 2020.
10 The term “ancestral elaboration” was used by Steven Reutter, the husband of one of Andy Oyler’s granddaughters. Emails with Steve Reutter, March 3, 4, and 24, 2020.
11 Telephone conversations with Fred Oyler, March 5-6, 2020.
12 Tod Powell on SABR-L, December 25, 1999. My sense that Tod’s comment was tongue-in-cheek is buttressed by his other sentence that follows: “Plugging my ears and singing ‘Pinball Wizard’ until it’s safe to unplug and shut up, I am Tod Powell, inventor, KARMA LEAGUE BASEBALL.”
13 Alfred H. Spink, The National Game, St. Louis: National Game Publishing Company, 1911 (Reprinted by Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000), p. 367. The pitcher who lost this game was Frank Isbell. Not surprisingly, nothing like this happened when Isbell pitched for St. Paul in the 19th century.
14 Mac Davis, Sports Shorts: Astonishing Strange but True, New York: Bantam Books, 1958: 143; “Sports of the County” by Lefty Ranweiler, Centennial History of Kandiyohi County, 1970: 323.
15 Charles Fountain, The Betrayal: The 1919 World Series and the Birth of Modern Baseball, New York: Oxford University Press, 2016: 114.
16 Bill Stern with Oscar Fraley, The Taste of Ashes: A Famous Broadcaster’s Courageous Comeback for Addiction and Disaster, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1959: 111.
17 Tom Heitz on SABR-L, December 23, 1995.
18 Nancy Jo Leachman on SABR-L, January 5, 1996.
20 Matt Tavares, Mudball, Somerville, Massachusetts: Candlewick Press, 2005. Email correspondence with Tavares, 2004.
21 I found nothing resembling a hit into the mud in any college or amateur/semi-pro games Oyler played in.
22 Andy Oyler died in 1970, well before I wrote anything about the home run. Fred said the trunk was with his son for many years and then with his sister, who died in 2004. Likely a family member got this article/monograph at some time and put it in the trunk.
23 Graves’s 1905 letter claimed Doubleday had invented the game in Cooperstown in around 1939. Graves’s stories varied over time—from hearing of the creation second hand, to actually having witnessed Doubleday laying out a diamond, to even playing in the first game of baseball, as a student at Cooperstown’s Green College in 1840 (even though Graves would have been only six years old at the time). Many of the newspapers, like the commission, loved his stories and didn’t bother to check his claims, no matter how outlandish. Graves had twice been institutionalized before coming up with the stories about Doubleday and again in 1924, after murdering his wife in a fit of paranoia. More on Graves is available in “Mr. Abner Graves: Colorado’s Connection to the Doubleday Myth,” by David Block, Above the Fruited Plain: Baseball in the Rocky Mountain West, edited by Thomas L. Altherr, Souvenir publication of the 2003 Society for American Baseball Research national convention, Denver, Colorado: 9-12.
24 Telephone conversation with Fred Oyler, June 20, 2020.